Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Making progress?

We had the Annual Town Meeting last night in Frodsham.  About 20 people came.

Can you read anything into the low turnout?  Who knows?

Where does attending the annual town meeting rank alongside what's on the telly, or taking your children to cubs or brownies or whatever else is going on?  Does this show something about how well the event was advertised?

What history has told us in Frodsham is that if there are things that interest or rankle with the community you will get a higher turnout.  So I can draw some comfort from that whatever else FTC is doing at the moment we are not winding up the vast majority of our parishioners.

I presented the annual report in short form - you are welcome to read the full report by calling into the council offices or by viewing it on the Frodsham Town Council website.

I was challenged on a few issues and I report here on my recollection of the challenges and my replies to them.

One local resident questioned the rise in the council tax.  

The rise in the tax for the entire year in Frodsham on a Band D property is of the order of £2.  That's £2 for a whole year.   Effectively the council tax has been frozen - and the changes we made to FTC's budget in January 2012 meant that an extra £32,000 came to FTC as opposed to CWaC.  That is money that we can spend for the benefit of our community.

The same resident wanted to know why things like the proposed spending on the Town Champion, the Christmas Lights and proposals for CCTV etc were not in the manifesto for the election in May 2011.

The Frodsham First manifesto set out how things were to be done - not the individual projects.  The council did consult the locals extensively in the summer of last year and the residents supported more investment in the Christmas lights.  You can't set out every proposal in a manifesto for a 4 year term - especially when so much depends on the turn of events.  It wasn't until January 2012 that the Mary Portas town centre proposals were published by the government.  It wasn't until January 2012 with the changes in council tax that we knew we would be able to fund a position such as a Town Champion.  

Also in terms of husbanding the council's resources we were able to demonstrate an improved cash position over the previous year as we constrained expenditure.   The council is better off by more than £10,000 because of this.

Another question raised the question of CWaC's Governance Review for all of our parish councils and why FTC had requested its boundaries be changed to encompass the land between the River Weaver and the Navigation.

I replied that the Governance Review was long overdue.  They were meant to have been done every 10 years - but they hadn't been done in our part of Cheshire in any recent time - and certainly not in any comprehensive way.  All parishes and the unparished areas are being consulted and the decisions will be for CWaC to determine as a full council in due course after extensive consultations which will last 12 months.  With regard to the specifics I replied that if one asked the people of Frodsham where they thought the boundary was they would reply 'the swing bridge' and not the stone bridge.   No doubt this is something that will be tested in the consultation process.  I also pointed out that the businesses in Lady Heyes also want to be associated with Frodsham.  The Governance Review also will be looking at our electoral arrangements.  I pointed out that we needed to be re-warded as 4 FTC Cllrs are elected in north ward with well over 2,000 electors, whereas 5 Cllrs are elected in East ward where there are 1963 electors on the current roll.

Interestingly one of the other FTC Cllrs chimed up to say he didn't want to see the boundary changed given what he judged to be the extensive ground contamination in that area.  Unfortunately that shows he perhaps doesn't understand the ambit of a Town Council, and its powers and responsibilities. The existence or otherwise of contamination does not impact on the town council.  And in fact if there are issues of ground contamination on our door step I would rather be a part of finding solutions and being in a position to drive matters than not.

One resident questioned how I had gone about dealing with the public toilets in Frodsham.

I explained that neither FTC not CWaC has any statutory responsibility to provide public toilets in Frodsham.  We have to contemplate that such a service may not be offered going forward - although there are no plans to remove the public provision at the moment.  As has often been reported it costs of the order of £20,000 a year for CWaC to provide our public toilets in Frodsham.  CWaC would, like a shot transfer those toilets to FTC for us to manage.  But there is no point in us taking on such a responsibility unless we have plans for what could be done.  Many towns and communities invite businesses to let the public use their facilities.  I have been exploring that issue with 5 different businesses and organisations in Frodsham.  I made the point there is no point in trying to deal with a problem unless you tell people that you are dealing with it.  The real thrust of complaint centred around the publicity associated with the issue and not, I suspect the provision itself.

The same resident raised the issue of the swing bridge and what FTC was doing about it.
The reality is, that whilst this bridge is of vital importance to Frodsham it is, unless a governance review changes the boundaries, it is in Sutton Weaver and thus in parish council terms it is right that they raise the issue with the public authorities.  However, as a town council FTC has no role in this matter other than as a lobbyist and a consultee.  The real debates and issues lie between British Waterways and CWaC.

The bridge belongs to British Waterways and they have a legal obligation to maintain the bridge.  My simple view is that they are in breach of that obligation - but that only takes us so far.  The bridge now needs structural work doing to it.  The estimated costs are of the order of £4.5m.  To put that in context that £4.5m would represent half of CWaC's road maintenance budget for a year.  So how are we going to bridge that funding gap?  Cllr Lynn Riley and I, and a host of other people are working on this at the moment.

There have been a few schemes suggested such as getting volunteers to paint the bridge, having quantities of paint donated to at least smarten up the structure.  Enquries have suggested that these voluntary schemes are  untested and very likely untenable - however here I am reporting what others have advised me.  There is also the fundamental issue of having volunteers paint the visible structure when the real problem lies in the vehicle deck.

So there are no magic wands - if only there were.  In reality whilst FTC can say things about the bridge the Town Council isn't in a position to do much about the swing bridge other than lobbying.  The decisions about it lie elsewhere.